“We Conceive” is the last update in Rachel Masilamani’s NON PARTUM series, published by Mutha Magazine in June of 2015. While I’d been writing about the series, one by one, as it came out, I fell off by the time this one came out, because certain elements of Masilimani’s comic about health, trauma, and trying to children began to hit home for me too much.
Masilimani’s work is intense, confessional but not just memoir. Like Leela Corman, Masilamani contextualizes her experiences with that of others, connecting her struggles with fertility treatment with those of other women seeking care and never finding it. Throughout NON PARTUM, Masilimani and other women face barriers to good medical care in the form of doctors who don’t listen or who don’t explain things to women they figure won’t understand, and in the form of social stigma. “Plan B-200” looks at our difficult relationship with teenage sexuality, with adult infertility and with women’s bodies. “The Subject” moves on to her experiences with mental health care, the difficulty of finding care that matches your needs, the often scattershot nature of it all. And finally, “Spontaneous, Inevitable, Habitual” looks at her experience of miscarriage.
It’s been awhile since I last wrote about Masilamani’s work so I guess I can repeat some of my old points: she uses colour to indicate shifts in time and mood, along with shape. Lots of small panels allow her to convey information quickly but they also, quite literally, lead to that portion of the comic feeling boxed in. In “We Conceive” those short panels are reserved for memories of a childhood friend and announcing her pregnancy to moms of her mom’s generation. More contemplative panels are wider and the bodies within them are elongated, curved in stretches, surrounded by soft coloured backgrounds, blue or pink, depending on the mood. What I like about Masilamani’s work is that these switches don’t feel so calculated. The rhetorical ordering of the comic is just so but the transitions feel smooth, not abrupt, more of a “but then again…” Memoirs are of course constructed — one chooses these three memories to share, in this order, because they hang to together thematically and make a good arc — but one tries to hide the working behind the work. The kind of memoir Masilamani is engaged in (and Corman too) mimics the way that memories operate more as an associational tree than a linear road. This and then that and all the but then agains in between. If you pull it off, this kind of memoir-essay feels quite natural indeed. Political points sit comfortably with tender memories.
So where am I in all this? This year my alopecia and some other health issues have tipped over from annoyances to problems and I have been occupied by waiting waiting waiting in waiting rooms and battling doctors to be heard. My sister-in-law is struggling to conceive — her difficulties, we learned are a result of delayed medical treatment, not inherited or environmental infertility. It’s not that I see myself in Masilamani’s comics — our experiences are so different, after all — but that I find myself in certain corners of it and I take to reminiscing, wondering, worrying. Her work is deeply affecting.The opening line of this comic is “we conceive — you and I — in the right neighbourhood, on the right side of the city line.” Throughout NON PARTUM, Masilamani has examined acceptable and unacceptable pregnancies, acceptable and unacceptable methods of controlling fertility. By the time of this comic, she has finally conceived the right kind of pregnancy. The “you” isn’t her partner, who appears in this comic only as an off panel speaker. The “you” is another mother, who has also conceived at the appropriate age, income, health and relationship status. It could be her lost childhood friend Heidi, who is the subject of Masilamani’s reminiscences here. It could be her own daughter, grown. It could be any mother, or some aspect of Masilamani herself. But that line has the affect of opening the comic to other mothers-to-be, of making it both personal and general. Usually a distancing effect, here that unseen “you” invites us in. As Masilimani moves on to consider the role of mothers in their children’s early childhood friendship, there is ambiguity as to who the two mother-friends are: Rachel and Heidi? Their moms? Rachel and some new friend to be? This too has the effect of generalizing the experience — motherhood, friendship — without sacrificing Masilamani’s particular perspective. It allows her to maintain a confessional intimacy in this comic.
Masilamani’s thoughts on friendship here are particularly interesting, I think, in the context of typical mother narratives. Friendship is emphasized over planning, over perfecting a space for the coming child, even over typical worries about mothering technique. Of mothering she says, “I’ve already messed up, but here I am growing broad and calm.” She may have conceded the right pregnancy in the right place at the right time, but she isn’t necessarily doing pregnancy in the right way. Instead of control, she considers interconnectedness — what role did her mother play in her childhood friendships and what role will she play in her baby’s; what space does a mother occupy socially, not just in the family, but in the world? These are not points she lingers on explicitly, but considers during the course of this journey. The mother identity, the name to which all mothers respond is one that Masilamani and other mothers are taking up but not one that subsumes all other identities. Young Rachel and her friend Heidi play a game: in a public place they call out “mom, mom” and see how many mothers turn to look; it starts because Rachel thinks it’s odd that Heidi’s mother is an exception to this, answering only to her “real name,” Jean. Those who answer to “mom” are still “Jeans,” though, and whether she answers to it or not, Jean is still “mom.” Rachel herself is her mom’s, her child’s and her own.
NON PARTUM is a beautiful comic and “We Conceive” is a great conclusion to it. It is so heartening to hear that Masilamani was finally able to conceive. It is heartening too to see the affect it has had on her, a measure of peace, maybe. Masilamani says that she hopes to continue NON PARTUM but these four parts are make a surprisingly tidy arc, certainly worth print publication as is. How nice that last panel would be on the last page of a print comic: two mothers-to-be building a friendship, looking forward to lives they will soon meet.